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Michael Kennedy 1926–2014


At Michael Kennedy’s funeral  in Manchester in January, the address was given by Sir Mark Elder – a rare if not unique instance of a practical musician of distinction honouring a critic. Moreover, Michael was no sycophant but a Mancunian plain spoken about things around him as well as at a distance, nor was he a ‘sundial’ critic, with the motto, ‘Horas non numero nisi serenas’ (‘I count only the bright hours’). He had vigorous opinions, well thought out and well argued, but he spoke them with courtesy; and though he had never been a performer himself, he was fully aware of how exceedingly difficult the craft of music is. He paid a musician’s attention to his own craft, writing with a subtlety of ear and a grace and fluency that have given his books a permanent place in music lovers’ libraries.


How he found time for so much, while pouring out reviews chiefly in the Daily Telegraph while also acting as its Northern Editor, often far into the night, and later brilliantly in the Sunday Telegraph, is something of a mystery. Towards the end of the war, as a homesick young sailor on the other side of the world, he wrote to Vaughan Williams in admiration after a broadcast of the Fifth Symphony, and received a warm reply from that warmhearted man. It led to friendship with VW and his wife Ursula, and a well-ordered collaboration with her in a two-volume life and works. But he found his real voice with Portrait of Elgar (1968), in which with a minimum of technical discussion but out of thorough background research he opened up a wider understanding of Elgar’s complex nature, of the sadness and uncertainty, but the strong belief in central values, which lay within such masterpieces as Gerontius and the two symphonies.


There followed contributions to the Master Musicians series with books on Mahler, Strauss and Britten – Strauss was a composer of whom he would speak no ill and did not like it from others – and among conductors on John Barbirolli, who with his wife Evelyn became a personal friend, and Adrian Boult. He was hurt when there were complaints that he had not been penetrating enough about Boult’s inner life. I tried to defend him about this, and was greatly touched to have the dedication of his next book, on William Walton. He skilfully captured much in Walton’s enigmatic character, good-humoured and entertaining but fenced in with false trails and blind alleys, and he remained a warm friend with the captivating, tigressishly defensive Susana after Walton’s death. 


There were other ventures, notably histories of the Hallé Orchestra and the Royal Manchester College of Music, and the Oxford Dictionary of Music, no less. On the second edition of this he was helped by Joyce Bourne, whom he married in 1999, having cared loyally for his first wife, Eslyn, through her long illness with multiple sclerosis. He was appointed OBE in 1981 and CBE in 1997, though he did not attach great importance to these; he was at his happiest talking about music with friends, or about cricket with some of the players at Old Trafford. On all sides, he was held in the greatest admiration and, above all, affection.


Michael Kennedy was born on February 19th, 1926; he died on December 31st, 2014.

John Warrack


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